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First Sunday of Lent - Waters of judgement that also bring us to life

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I intend to draw out some of the meaning of the section of 1 Peter given to us today. It is a difficult passage that has been variously interpreted, even among the doctors of the Church. To interpret it one needs to be familiar with the whole of the Noah narrative (Gen 6-9). Also it is helpful to appreciate that 1 Peter is most probably an exhortation given on the theme of baptism, in the context of a Christian community that is experiencing persecution, and needed teaching about suffering and punishment, and how these relate to justice, to God and to Jesus.

God called the people of Noah’s day to repentance – like Jesus in today’s gospel, and like the early church in her preaching. In Noah's day virtually no one responded properly and so God sent the flood that destroyed all but those 8 people and the animals on the ark. However, it seems that the question arose as to what happened to those people who perished. This was linked to the eternal fate of all people who had died before the coming of Jesus, precisely in the light of the salvation brought by Jesus Christ. It was very early established in the Christian Tradition and thus recorded in the Scriptures that Jesus went down to the realms of the dead to declare his victory, that is to preach the gospel (1 Pet 3:19 & 4:6). This meant that righteous souls could now enter heaven. It also meant that solace and hope was given to souls still being purified. By contrast, any souls in hell, and the demons, would know more clearly the truth of the just judgement that they had brought upon themselves by their rejection of God and divine righteousness.

Peter relates this general understanding to the dead from the flood in Noah’s day, including them among the dead to whom the Gospel of Jesus, including its victory and judgement is announced. Does the salvation which seems to be offered to at least some of those who perished in the flood mean that God changed his mind in judging them? Or that God got it wrong in sending the flood? No! It would seem that, in the time of Peter, it was understood that though they died physically - in this sense being judged ‘in the flesh’ - at least some of them, faced with the rising waters of the flood, most probably repented before finally being drowned. Such souls then would benefit from the preaching of Christ to them and will have a share in his victory. (See also 1 Peter 4:4-6).

Peter makes it clear that Jesus, who was truly innocent and suffered unjustly, enabled God’s justice, judgement and victory to be established, – as Jesus had proclaimed, even in today’s gospel, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand! (Mk 1:15)’. Peter makes it clear that this judgement and victory extended to those held in the realms of the dead. Further, the Risen, Glorified, Ascended Christ (1Peter 3:22) is a surer sign in the heavens of God’s merciful covenant than the rainbow in Noah’s day (Gen 9:12-16). One man’s unjust death offers life to all, to as many as will receive it by repenting and believing and being baptised and living in that grace (cf 1 Pet 3:18a).

But Peter also draws a parallel between the situation at the time of Noah and that of the church, and between the flood and the grace of baptism. The Church preached and still preaches to an often unbelieving generation, as also was true in the time of Noah and Jesus. The church preaches the victory of Christ but as part of that it preaches Christ as the true judge. Because of our sins and sinfulness, death is a just sentence. But we are offered the chance to come through death to life, following Christ. We do that by dying in the waters of baptism - in the flood of baptism so to speak - and so we enter into the community of the Church which is the ark of God’s mercy. It saves us from the devastating flood, that is the further death of hell, the second or eternal death as the New Testament elsewhere calls it.

It is crucial to see Jesus as the true judge, and to know that things that happen to us, even our physical suffering, persecution and physical death do not mean God is judging against us - if we are being renewed in Christ and have the pledge of a good conscience, given us by the Risen Christ (cf 1 Pet 3:21). This is the wider argument of much of 1 Peter. Also we leave God to decide the fate of others, hoping that they will choose to die to sin in the waters of baptism and not be swept by the flood of sin into hell (cf 1 Peter 4:5).

Peter thus gives hope to his congregation. What matters is being judged by Christ now since his kingdom is at hand (cf Mk 1:15), and to respond by repenting, believing, being baptised and living ever more fully in the grace of a renewed life in God, a life given in and through that sacrament and the other forms of grace God gives us in Christ. And doing that is the special focus of Lent.

Let us determine this Lent to come ever more fully into the presence of Jesus Christ, to his word, his light and his truth, and be judged by him, repenting and believing ever more fully. This will prepare us well as we approach the Easter Triduum and the renewal of our baptismal vows, and the sprinkling with holy water that follows. In all we do in the seasons of Lent and Easter may we more fully die with Christ and so also share more fully in his Risen life!

Andrew Brookes OP


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